For close to 30 years, a war has raged over a few yards of frozen rock in the Himalayas, 22,000 feet above sea level.
Sometimes called the “Third Pole,” the Siachen Glacier stretches nearly 50 miles along the eastern Karakoram Range in the Kashmir region between India and Pakistan, where national borders can get … blurry.
The glacier’s craggy landscape, paper-thin air, heavy snowfall and bone-chilling temperatures make it one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. For armies, this is a place where mountaineering is more important than marksmanship.
In April 1984, the Indian army launched Operation Meghdoot, which sought to claim sovereignty over the treacherous glacier. The goal was to demarcate Siachen ahead of the Pakistani military, which was also trekking in the region.
India deployed a battalion of specially-trained infantrymen called the Ladakh Scouts, also known as the Snow Tigers. The scouts traveled on foot through the frozen Zoji La Pass until, on April 13, they were able to reach the critical areas surrounding the Siachen.
The expedition resulted in a brand-new word—“oropolitics,” which means mountaineering for political purposes.
After 1984, Pakistan launched several attempts to overtake the Indian army. The most famous came in 1987 when special U.S.-trained Pakistani troops infiltrated so deeply into Indian territory that the two sides fought hand-to-hand. But neither side was able to gain much ground.
In the following years, both armies continued to dig themselves into strategic positions around the Siachen Glacier and along the Saltoro Ridge. Further skirmishes broke out in 1990, 1995, 1996 and 1999.
Over the course of the conflict, India built the world’s highest helipad—at Fort Sonam, 21,000 feet above sea level. India also installed the world’s highest telephone booth on the glacier.
Many hundreds have died in the fighting. The most deadly foe in the conflict, however, has always been the weather, which has caused nearly 2,000 deaths from frostbite and avalanches.
Though the Siachen conflict has lasted for nearly three decades, little information about the drawn-out war is available, as reporters have found it extremely difficult to reach the frozen front line. “The [wars] you never hear about are the ones that camera crews have the hardest time getting to,” said James F. Dunnigan, a military analyst and co-author of A Quick and Dirty Guide to War.
Despite a ceasefire signed in 2003, both nations still maintain no fewer than 150 outposts and 3,000 troops apiece in the snowy region. And the ceasefire has not ended the high-altitude bloodletting. In 2012, 140 Pakistani soldiers died in an avalanche.
To this day, both India and Pakistan both claim sovereignty over the area around the Siachen Glacier.